So. California's San Onofre nuclear plant, near fault line and sea, built to withstand less than Japan plant

(photo by Jason Hickey)

A spokesman for Southern California Edison, the operator of the San Onofre nuclear power generating station (between LA and San Diego, the big white dome-shaped thing off I-5) was trying to calm fearful Southern California residents today when he explained that the 84-acre generating station was built to withstand a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. He also told local media that a 25-foot-high "tsunami wall" of reinforced concrete stood between the plant and the immediately adjacent Pacific ocean.

Well, that's nice. But this Southern California resident remains concerned: the earthquake that devastated Japan last Friday, throwing various nuclear power plants into crisis and sparking worldwide fears of a major nuke accident, was a 9.0 "great quake." And the tsunami that soon followed? That was 33 feet high.

When the plant was built 42 years ago (42 years! That's forever in design-years!), scientists predicted a 6.5 quake could strike the plant. The designers of the San Onofre plant built with a higher threshold in mind. But man, not high enough, for my money. There's a geological fault just 5 miles offshore, and good odds we'll be hit by a "great quake" of our own, sooner or later.

For context: those documents from TEPCO, operator of the stricken Fukushima plant in Japan, that were obtained by reporters at the Wall Street Journal? They show that engineers tested the Fukushima plant to withstand a quake up to magnitude 7.9.

Los Angeles Times article here.


  1. the big white dome-shaped thing off I-5

    Don’tcha mean the suggestive pair of white dome-shaped things?

    It’s always worth a titter or two as one drives past, especially with the red warning lights gently flashing away in the evening sky, right on the, uh, peaks.

    Cheap giggles aside, yeah. As a native San Diegan, that thing has worried me since I was a kid.

    1. I believe that was the nuclear plant they used for a scene in The Naked Gun where Leslie Nielsen is pining for his lost love. “Everywhere I go, I see something that reminds me of her…” [cut to exterior shot of car driving past San Onofre plant]

  2. A seismologist from a quake monitoring org was on the local news here in SF last week and said that the largest quake California could expect is an 8.0.

    He was smiling that weird smile scientists get when they’re passing along info without understanding what that info would mean to the average schmo.

  3. I was thinking this very thing on Saturday. The amount of sprawl that has crept up on San Onofre, North to South, is very sobering. Add to that the nature of the terrain that surrounds the plant (mountains directly behind, and the Ocean in front), and the implicit vulnerability of the surrounding support infrastructure, and you have a guaranteed disaster. There is, however, Camp Pendelton just a few clicks to the South, with heavy lift capabilities, and the Navy’s fleet of Hovercraft, that would aid disaster relief should the need arise. San Diego also happens to have the West Coast’s/the worlds largest Naval base, brimming with nuclear techs and support resources. Cold comfort after a major quake though…

  4. SSSHHH! You’ll let the terrorists know! If they know our infrastructure is vulnerable to earthquakes, then they’ll know exactly how to hit us.

  5. Note that there is not a subduction zone just offshore of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. So you are unlikely to see anything like what happened in Japan in 2011, in Sumatra in 2004, or what is overdue in the U.S. Pacific Northwest from the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

    1. And sober risk assessment, besides keeping calm.

      I get that nuclear plants are scary and that unnecessary extra risk should be avoided, but the article struck me oddly.

      It’s like the author is saying, “I live in an area where I believe the risk of an 8.0+ magnitude earthquake and more-than-25-foot tsunami is likely, and I find this risk acceptable, except for that darned nuclear plant, which might fail under this scenario, causing a 0.5% increase in fatalities and a comparable increase in injuries, should this scenario arise. I would be more comfortable if significant resources were dedicated to eliminating this particular source of additional risk.”

      (My arithmetic assumes 10 direct fatalities from Fukushima, compared to at least 2,000 non-nuclear earthquake-and-tsunami fatalities. One part in 200 is half a percent.)

      This is probably the result of my head being numbed by too many stats, and I *have* been getting technical info from pro-nuclear venues. And, as I say, I really do understand where the concern comes from, and I share it to a degree. But, it’s also true that what we’re hearing from Japan is that even if Fukushima goes quite badly, its contribution to the sum total fatalities, casualties, and property damage will be, fractionally speaking, small.

      1. After looking at those tsunami videos i fear that your death total of 2,000 may prove to be an order of magnitude too low.

  6. IANAG but I thought the nature of the San Andreas fault (strike slip, horizontal motion) as opposed to the subduction zone (reverse thrust, vertical motion) that characterizes the fault near Japan would make the possibility of a locally created tsunami much more remote. The 7.0 is bothersome however.

  7. “There’s a geological fault just 5 miles offshore, and good odds we’ll be hit by a “great quake” of our own, sooner or later.”

    I wonder how the journalist calculated the odds, and what timeframe sooner or later consists of. I think there are good odds that the journalist just made something up with no backing.

    1. He just means that it’s possible to happen, and that’s it likely that EVENTUALLY a quake big enough will hit it. It could be in a year, it could be in 300 years. The point is that quakes of that magnitude can happen, and have happened before. If the plant isn’t made sturdier, it will probably be hit “sooner or later”.

      1. But it’s not just a matter of statistics, it’s a matter of geology. A magnitude 9.0 probably WILL hit near Seattle within a few centuries, yes, because that’s the same sort of zone. One won’t hit San Diego in any conceivable time scale. Lots of 7.0s, if you wait long enough, yes (but not in the operating lifespan). But not 9.0s. Just because they happened elsewhere in the past, doesn’t mean it will happen there soon (it can, but only because of a meteor hit).

        In short, a tsunami big enough hitting that plant is more likely from meteor strike than local earthquake.

  8. the tsunami that soon followed? That was 33 feet high.

    That’s a feature, not a bug!

    A sufficiently powerful earthquake will generate a tsunami large enough to flow over the wall and into the reactors, cooling them. Brilliant!

  9. How do you test that a plant can withstand a 7.9 quake? They must mean a software simulation, which is different from a test.

  10. BTW, Richter scale measurements are a log-base-10 scale of the amplitude of horizontal movements. So an 8.0 is 10 times as much movement as a 7.0, and a 9.0 is 100 times as much movement as a 7.0.

    Hate to say it, but good luck building a reactor that’s 100 times as fault-tolerant as this one. How about maybe don’t build them on fault lines?

  11. Also, keep in mind the kind of faults in SoCal (strike/slip, geologists help a brother out?) has a lot to do with the amount of damage and size of tsunami. The fault in SoCal moves land from north to south, and is not the kind that causes tsunami (subduction fault, moving land from up to down).

    Tsunami of even 50 feet, generated by the nearest subduction fault (Juan de Fuca plate, up towards Washington State) could reasonably be expected to dissipate to that flood wall size by the time it got there.

    I’m not saying it;s a defensible idea to put a huge potential hazard in between two of the largest cities on the west coast, but these two items are not strong arguments. Within the reactors life cycle i’d be much more worried about terrorists attacking it, or getting the waste, than a trunami causing the same sort of problem,

    And if it did. the US Navy would send a carrier over, plug it in, and restart the pumps, just like they did to the entire NYC subway system after the big blackouts. On the upside, always a carrier within a day’s cruise from there.

    1. On the upside, always a carrier within a day’s cruise from there.

      My first thought was “it takes a whole day for the Kitty Hawk to make a 70 mile trip?”

      My second thought was, “oh wait… they decommisioned her a couple years back.”

      My third thought was, “oh yeah… and she wasn’t nuclear powered.”

      And finally, my long-belated fourth thought: “I don’t think Kitty Hawk has been stationed in San Diego since I was in high school.”

      It’s a good thing I type so slowly.

      1. Hey I thought all US carriers were nuclear-powered…or is that just the submarines?

        Are the laundry ships nuclear-powered too?

        1. Yep, all nuke. Since the Kitty Hawk was retired a couple of years ago, all of our carriers are nuclear. Same with our subs, with the retirement of the Dolphin.

        2. As dbarak mentioned, since the Kitty Hawk was decommissioned, all our carriers are nuke-powered. She was the last conventional-fuel carrier in our fleet. Keel laid in 1956!

          1. I can’t help but feel your Navy is on to something.
            i mean, in the use of smaller reactors. These big power plants are not the only applications for nuke power reactors. Perhaps in the future they won’t even be the primary application of nuclear reactors.

            Smaller, modular reactor designs may make good sense for various power-to-remote-area and other situations. As the US Navy has demonstrated.

    2. Unless the carriers are on deployment, as both the Carl Vinson (my old ship) and the Reagan are. They could send the Stennis down from Bremerton. Two days, maybe three?

  12. 1) Shut ’em down, shut them all down: aging nuclear, gas, and coal plants.

    2) Pebble Bed Reactors for all. NIMBYs can either learn to appreciate the inherent safety of the design or just go back to torches and steam engines.

    3) Energy problem solved!

  13. So what you’re saying is, it’s built to withstand an earthquake that is 1% as powerful as the one that hit japan.

    1. Just to put this in perspective, the estimated deathtoll from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami is now up to around 18,000. How many have died from the nuclear crisis? Any? Let’s say 10. That would mean Japan’s 53 nuclear power facilities raised the deathtoll risk from 18,000 to, what, 18,010? That would be 0.06% — not really measurable, in other words. And that’s for all 53 facilities taken together. It would be more like 0.001 PERCENT per nuclear facility.

      Conclusion: be afraid of the earthquake, not of the nuclear facility in the earthquake zone.

      1. For one thing, that’s possibly the faultiest logic that’s logically possible.

        Also, the 10 people who have died so far in whatever alternate reality you live in might beg to differ with you.

  14. It was my understanding the Fukushima reactor failed because the backup diesel generators were damaged, thus the cooling pump could not keep the core underwater. Most nuclear plants in the US have multiple backup generators and fail safes. Did you ask the operator at San Onofre how many backup generators they have? Or get a better idea of exactly what plans are in place if the main cooling unit is damaged? The key would be not “how high on the Richter” can the plant take before it goes offline, but what is the disaster plan in case of a large scale quake. What emergency backup steps are taken to keep the reactor contained and the rods cooled?

      1. Greg Palast is amazing. An honest to goodness real journalist.
        Everyone should read that from today and pass it along. We’re certainly not going to get any real information from the so-called “news outlets”.
        HARVEY WASSERMAN: “None of the reactors in the United States are insured beyond $12.4 billion. If such an accident happened here, the burden, the economic burden, will fall directly on the taxpayers and on the victims, not on the owners of the plants.”
        —from Democracy Now interview with Amy Goodman

        1. One reason amongst others why such plants ought to be owned by the public or by a quasi-public entity.

    1. From what I’ve read, the backup generators in Japan did come on line as planned… until the tsunami took them out. Even then, battery backup came on- it’s supposed to provide enough time to get mobile diesel generators in place. Due to quake damage, they didn’t get mobile diesel generators there in time.

      Nonetheless, in the absence of a tsunami, the backup generators would have stayed online. So if it is really true that the kinds of faults near this plant do not produce tsunamis, then that is not a problem.

      1. Check that Palast link for some healthy skepticism on the official line that the tsunami took out the diesels. They are notoriously unreliable. Besides, if you’re emergency plans don’t include the very likely event of a tsunami following a quake, they aren’t good plans.

        I’m not sure what you mean about the kinds of faults near the plant not producing tsunamis when that’s exactly what they do produce.

  15. Oh, for crying out loud.

    I saw this guy on the news, and what he ACTUALLY said was, the plant is specifically designed to withstand an earthquake event of 9.0 given the CLOSEST POSSIBLE EARTHQUAKE EPICENTER to the nuclear plant.

    The EPICENTER is where the earthquake is the STRONGEST. THAT’S where the highest reading will apply. The epicenter is on the FAULT LINE, and the nuclear power plant is NOT on the fault line [because THAT would be STUPID, and nuclear physicists are NOT STUPID]. The further away you get from the epicenter, the less strong the earthquake will register. This is why ALL of Japan didn’t get wiped out.

    If the closest [5+ miles away] possible earthquake epicenter to the nuclear plant experiences a 9.0 earthquake, the earthquake would register as 6.5 at the nuclear plant [this is the so called “estimate” you’re concerned about].

    The plant is specifically designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake b/c it’s the higher than the highest possible level of seismic activity the PLANT could EVER experience. [Unless a meteor hits. I guess that’s possible.]

    The only reason everyone’s all huffy is because when Wolf Blitzer mediated an interview with the nuclear plant rep, he commented ON AIR that he didn’t understand the explanation AND didn’t trust the scientist, which is, btw, completely unprofessional behavior for ANY journalist.

    The reason the Japanese nuclear reactors are having so much trouble is that the BACK up generators that would keep the cooling process going are flooded. They are flooded b/c they were built UNDERNEATH the ground and the water wall wasn’t high enough to keep the first tsunami waves out. Without the back up generators, when the power went out, the cooling process faltered. That’s what’s causing all the problems – lack of power.

    Perhaps questioning the safety procedures of US nuclear power plants instead of assuming the “sneaky” scientist is trying to pull one over on you would be more productive. Those safety procedures, btw, are FEDERALLY and INTERNATIONALLY REGULATED. If those safety precautions are less than satisfactory, then blame whichever politicians signed legislation restricting EPA safety guidelines and not the scientist Wolf Blitzer “doesn’t trust.”

  16. That offshore fault Xeni mentioned is a much smaller, much less active fault than either the San Andeas or San Jacinto, and only capable of producing a 6.0 earthquake. Earthquake magnitude is largely a function of faulted length, and this is a relatively short fault. La Jolla would be in trouble (that is where fault comes ashore, and continues around Soledad Mountain into downtown SD), but the plant would likely be fine.

    Just because a fault exists, does not mean it can create any magnitude earthquake.

    The San Jacinto fault is capable of generating large earthquakes (7.0-ish), but is located some 50 miles inland. Also, strike-slip earthquakes, like the ones that happen in SoCal, do not produce tsunamis (of any real scale).

  17. How old is this reactor?


    Newer reactor designs are much safer, why not rebuild it anew?

    1. Because, as I understand it, no one is issuing permits for new plants to actually be constructed.

  18. Every nuclear plant in the world is an atomic bomb waiting to explode. Think about all these obsolet plants forcing to work beyond their expiration dates, when the designers didn’t expect that… Think about all these Third World countries with unmotivated workers, lazy security tests and poor building materials… Think about these atom factories built near a tornado alley, a sismic fault, or a seashore… Think about all the things could be wrong, a discontent worker, a suicidal terrorist, an earthquake, a tsunami, a computer fail…

    Have a nice day.

  19. Only subduction zones, where one continental plate is being driven under another, can produce mag-9.0 quakes. The mechanism is entirely different than surface faulting.

    There is no subduction zone off the coast of Southern Calfornia. The continental plate junction in Southern California is a transform fault, not a subduction zone.

    So we can’t have a mag-9.0 subduction-zone quake.

    It’s. Not. Possible.

    And the only possible mag-8 “great quakes” in Southern California would be along the great faults – the San Andreas and its sub-parallel branches, and the Garlock fault.

    The maximum possible rupture on a transform fault is around mag-7. That’s simple physics – more stress than that, and the rock fractures.

    A mag-8.0 quake is really a series of multiple ~mag-7 ruptures occurring one ofter the other along a very long fault segment – about 200 miles or so.

    There are very few faults that big.

    And none of them are close enough to the coastline at San Onofre to be a serious threat.

    The most serious seismic threat to San Onofre is, in fact, a large (not great) quake on a local fault – and those max out around mag-7, because they’re smaller, shorter faults.

    Exactly the sort of quake the engineers have designed for.

    A mag-7.0 quake on a local fault near the San Onofre plant could produce far, FAR worse shaking than anything on the San Andreas system or the Garlock.

    So if the plant is built to survive a local mag-7.0, it will EASILY survive a mag-8.0 on the San Andreas or Garlock.

    The same was true at Fukushima – the local 7.9 the plant was designed to withstand would produce WAY more violent shaking than the offshore 9.0 subduction quake that just occurred.

    The engineers at Fukushima were perfectly correct in using a local 7.9 as the worst possible case for seismic damage to the plant’s structure.

    And, in fact, the Fukushima plant survived the relatively mild shaking from the 9.0 offshore quake just fine.

    It was the tsunami that precipitated the current crisis, not structural damage from the earthquake.

    In an earthquake, distance matters.

    A lot.

    1. “And, in fact, the Fukushima plant survived the relatively mild shaking from the 9.0 offshore quake just fine.”

      No, it didn’t. Its cooling system failed, precipitating an overheating crisis that is still ongoing.

      “It was the tsunami that precipitated the current crisis, not structural damage from the earthquake.”

      Even if that is true (and you really take your chances when you believe the pronouncements of the nuclear industry, or ‘official’ government explanations), so what? A tsunami is a predictable, likely consequence of the quake that just occured. Now everything is ok, because, gosh, it just shouldn’t have happened that way?

      NASA doesn’t agree that tsunamis are unlikely with strike/slip quakes.…3..783H

      1. Jeez, guy, read my post.

        I said it survived the shaking from the quake. I’m aware of the tsunami and subsequent cooling-system failure.

        And I didn’t say that a tsunami from a slip-strike fault was unlikely. Because it isn’t. (I wasn’t aware that NASA had weighed in on the subject, but I’m glad to hear they agree.)

        And, no, I didn’t say “everything is ok, because, gosh, it just shouldn’t have happened that way.”

        Or anything even remotely like that.

        You’re criticizing your own projections, not what I posted.

        1. Your belief that the shaking had nothing to do with the cooling system failure is touching. I don’t think there is enough verifiable information out there to draw that conclusion. The nuclear industry is notorious for disinformation and fudging on safety, and there is no reason to accept their pronouncements at face value.

          As to the slip/strike thing, that was referring to posts above saying that tsunamis won’t result from a SoCal quake because it would not be a subduction. Not related to anything you said.

          1. Just so, there is not enough info to draw the opposite conclusion either; nor is there any evidence at all for thinking that Japanese officials are currently lying.

            Do you have ANY proof of such, beyond your suspicion of it?

          2. You’re right. I just expect obfuscation and lies on this situation since that has been the pattern of this industry for the past seventy years or so. They could very well be telling the unvarnished truth this time. But I wouldn’t bet my bicycle on it. Follow the Palast link. It’s a quick read, and gives a bit of insight into how the bastards work.

          3. yeah, I know about how people only in things for the money can be when it comes to the welfare of people they do not know.

            But I’ve stated my case: i could be wrong about it, i suppose.

          4. Forgeweld writes:
            You’re right. I just expect obfuscation and lies on this situation since that has been the pattern of this industry for the past seventy years or so. They could very well be telling the unvarnished truth this time. But I wouldn’t bet my bicycle on it. Follow the Palast link. It’s a quick read, and gives a bit of insight into how the bastards work.

            Look. Use Ockham’s razor. The ground movement at the reactor site was below the design specification. The operator, Japanese government, and IAEA all have the same story – reactors all properly scrammed and shut down immediately, then the wave hit and that disabled electrical power (diesel), and when the batteries ran out 8 hrs later the problems started. They were very open about “the batteries just ran out, we’re worried now” on day 1 hour 8.

            There is nothing in that story that is reasonable for someone to lie about. There is nothing in that story that is unlikely or unreasonable. What is there to cover up here?

            Yes, Tokyo Electric has a somewhat spotty safety record on paper. Yes, perhaps a month from now we need to societally rethink reactor safety overall. But diving into conspiracy theories is not helpful now.

          5. It’s a side argument. The main thing, I think, is that the designers and engineers the energy companies employ and the industry apologists push the line that there is such rigorous design and engineering, and built in redundancy to these things that there’s no need to worry, or question them. Then when the shit hits the fan, like now, they act like something unforeseeable happened, and the whole thing is exposed as the half-assed sham it is. This industry receives massive subsidies all around the world, cuts corners,and calls it good enough, and then we get what we have now, which any way you want to cut it is a shitty situation. The situation appears to be getting worse, and the pretense of having it under control getting thinner.

            Occam, schmoccam. The nuclear industry can’t open its mouth without lying. It’s ingrained behavior that has it’s roots in the military origins of the technology. If you think you’re getting a straight story out of them, that’s your problem. If it’s really a good, safe technology, let them insure themselves for a start.

            Diving into conspiracy theories is not helpful? I wasn’t aware that anything written into blog comments was riding in to save the day. Sorry if I’m letting the side down.

      2. NASA doesn’t agree that tsunamis are unlikely with strike/slip quakes.…3..783H

        This article, I do not think it means what you think it means.

        If you look at the centroid moment solution of the 7.0 Haiti earthquake the article talks about…
        you will see that the earthquake that produced a 1m tsunami had a significant vertical component, which is what the article attributes the tsunami to.

        Californian strike-slip earthquakes have very little vertical motion associated with them. In fact, the 1906 7.8 San Francisco earthquake produced only a 5 inch tsunami.

    2. Of course, the highly destructive Northridge quake took place on a previously unknown fault. And was massively destructive despite being only a 6.7 because of very high ground acceleration. Certainty in predicting earthquake damage is foolish and arrogant.

      1. Of course, the highly destructive Northridge quake took place on a previously unknown fault. And was massively destructive despite being only a 6.7

        Yes, exactly. That would be the “local 7.0 quake” the San Onofre plant is designed to withstand.

        Northridge was highly destructive because it took place directly under a heavily populated, built-up area. Like I said, distance matters.

        (And despite the violence of Northridge, the San Fernando Valley suffered far, far less damage than many other built-up areas might because almost (almost!) all the structures there are small, lightweight, and built AFTER the 1933 Long Beach quake and its subsequent building codes. There’s a reason LA is mostly built of sprawly low-rise stucco.)

        Because smaller faults like that can be hidden until the moment they strike, a local 7.0 is a very serious, very credible threat to San Onofre (or any other structure anywhere else in SoCal, even those not near a “known fault”).

        It’s a much more serious threat than an 8.0 on the rather distant San Andreas.

        Great quakes only happen on great faults. And we know where they are. They won’t take us by surprise like the smaller faults do.

        I think pretty much every serious LA-area quake so far has been on a “previously-unknown” fault. So getting all excited about building near a (small!) “known fault” is kinda missing the point, since it’s the small unknown faults that are most likely to kill you :-)

        My point was that a LOCAL mag-7 quake produces far, far greater structural stresses than a distant mag-8; and at San Onofre’s location a local 7.0 is fairly likely, while any mag-8 is virtually certain to be far away.

        And thus, it’s the most serious credible threat. The one the reactor was designed to survive.

        1. And my point is that magnitude is only one factor. If you’ve ever been in a big quake, you know that duration can be a motherfucker.

      2. And BTW, I would quibble about Northridge being “massively destructive.”

        I lived through Northridge in one of the hardest-hit areas (Mercalli IX!), so I’d certainly agree that it was very violent.

        But the destruction could have been far, far worse.

        We were fortunate on several counts: A fortuitous alignment of the rupture plane sent the worst of the quake’s energy into the nearly uninhabited mountains to our north; the conformation of the fault plane produced a much shorter period of shaking than typical for a quake that size; the 4:31am strike time meant most people were at home asleep in their beds; and, in terms of the built environment, we’re one of the most quake-resistant multi-million-population urban areas in the world.

        The news coverage made it look like the whole Valley had been flattened – but, mostly, they were showing the same dozen or so collapsed buildings over and over and over again.

        We got off really, really lightly.

        The damage wasn’t much at all compared to, say, the Kobe quake a year later; or the recent Haiti, or Chile, or Christchurch quakes; or any of a number of similar-sized quakes in other places with less good fortune and more vulnerable structures.

        A visiting team of Russian engineers and seismologists, sent to survey the damage, told me they estimated they would have lost about 250,000 people in a similarly-populated area. We lost about 60 or 70.

        Don’t get me wrong – it was a very serious quake. But I really think “massively destructive” substantially overstates it.

        1. The faults in SoCal are north-south (ish), the faults in chile, japan, and NZ are subduction fautls.

          It’s not just the magnitude. it’s not just the duration. It’s also whether land is being made to slide side to side, or over to under.

          yeah, that is what she said.

    3. “Only subduction zones, where one continental plate is being driven under another, can produce mag-9.0 quakes. ”

      Actually GlenBlank, there are very rare circumstances that will produce a mag-9.0 quake without it being at a subduction zone plate boundary. Fortuantly we are not likely to see an asteroid or large meteor collide with the earth in our (or our descendants) lifetime. But a large bolide collision are believed to produce quakes much greater than mag-9.
      Although mega-tsunamis of at least 180 m high seem to occur much more frequently due to impacts.

      And those books you mentioned are good introductory ones!

      1. Oooh, way to nit-pick! :-)

        I confess, I thought about qualifying that statement by mentioning extraterrestrial impacts, but I’m trying to rein in my verbosity at least a bit. :-)

  20. Today’s Democracy Now has a good interview regarding this and how there are plants using the same plan/model/layout that the Japanese facilites in the news in the US: how much they withstand quake-wise and have been tested for, etc. has the audio/video and dowloadable mp3.


  21. The original design of these stations included steam powered high pressure water injection pumps that were meant to function even if the electicity supply was down (by using all that high pressure steam still being produced by the scrammed core). There has been no mention of these in the Fukushima reports – so were they removed, or shut off, at some point during the 40 years of operation?

  22. I heard about a plant in VT that was due to be shut down some three years ago and is still going.

  23. You know if a meteor from space hits a nuclear power plant “just right”, then we could have a meltdown at that plant.

    Other ways:

    Angry soccer mom crashing in the area with a tank full of explosives
    Jet plane crash landing into it starting a meltdown
    A drunk engineer in the Control room having fun with buttons and failsafe switches starts a chain reaction

    When people start freaking out because of the near-constant coverage of a disaster everything that’s remotely similar to the disaster at hand becomes a threat and even the most minuscule odds of something happening around them is amplified 1000%.

    You have a infinite better chance getting killed by a car or having a heart attack or cancer then getting killed from radiation from a meltdown, but we don’t see the long odds..just the crazy ones now.

    I would worry WAY more of looters and thieves, falling debris, no electricity, food or water, or injuries and disease from stagnate water and devastation than about nuclear radiation if an earthquake/tsunami were going to happen.

  24. Today’s Democracy Now has a great apropos interview regarding this. Especially poignant that some US plants use the same model/layout/plans that the Japanese one in the news has. Also mentions the disaster testing/planning.


  25. The bigger concern as one other comment stated is from the Cascadia Subduction Zone. There are more than a few nuclear power plants in Washington State.

  26. For anyone who’s actually interested in learning about earthquakes, how they work, and what the real risks are, I highly recommend two books:

    Earthquakes by Bruce A. Bolt (W.H. Freeman Co.), is an excellent introduction to the geology and physics of earthquakes, written for the layman. It’s not intensely technical; but it’s not dumbed down down, either.

    Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country by Peter Yanev (Chronicle Books) is a detailed examination of the physical mechanisms of earthquakes, how they relate to man-made structures, what structures are vulnerable and why, and what you can do to minimize risk and damage in your home and business.

    Don’t leave yourself susceptible to ignorant scaremongers or uninformed pollyannas.

    Knowledge is power.

  27. I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I’ve been led to believe that SONGS is built very close to the same plant layout and design as ours at Palo Verde. (Hence usually being referred to as our sister plant)If so, that would mean their reactors are also designed to run on natural circ should the multiple diesels all simultaneously fail to start.

    1. Anonymous wrote: For anyone who’s actually interested in learning about earthquakes, how they work, and what the real risks are, I highly recommend two books:

      Hey Anonymous (if that is your real name) you want me to read a book about earthquakes? Seriously? Do you know how long it took me to read this article and at least half the responses? If I commit to a whole book it certainly will not be about earthquakes.

      Fortunately I have a God-given right America allows every citizen to sound off as loudly as possible in complete ignorance. Suck on that Canada.

  28. Well I think it is time to do some extra planning. My base idea would be what can break, how can it break, what can replace it, and how can that break. At some point I feel like you will need an outside system to be able to be brought in once internal systems fail. And the entire system should accommodate that. How likely shouldn’t play into the plan.

    1. Do you mean to imply that there have been entire Californian cities that have suckled the juice from the boobs of doom?

  29. My wife and I just passed those yesterday. They used to have a nifty little visitor center that described how fission works. That’s gone now. I’ve got a friend that works there, and from what he’s told me, I’m certainly not worried about the domes coming down. I’m not sure where the emergency generators are, but it seems to me it would be a good idea to have a set up on the bluffs just east of the freeway, way up out of the way of any unlikely tsunami, and on well-protected Marine Corps property.


    Ok, American science is obviously too tough for the reactor-hugging Ugly Canuck… but maybe some other intrepid Boingers would like to take a look at these two links I mentioned earlier here.

    This link shows the location of all the United States nuke plants:

    This link show the Earthquake Probability Mapping by lat & long OR zipcode (click zipcode link):

    (You can even pick the magnitude)

    Find out how likely your friends and family are to be doused with deadly radiation. You know, with nice and safe nuclear power plants.

  31. Why are we getting our knickers in a twist about San Onofre? Go look up Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant. No seriously, I’ll wait.

    Now dig a little, maybe check the location of the San Andreas, Hosgri, & Shoreline Faults. And others.

    Now commence wetting yourself. Assuming you haven’t moved out of California already, like I did.

    No, my move had nothing to do with considerations of Nuclear power plants and their placement. Still, the decision to build Diablo there always confused the crap outta me and I was damn young when it was built.

  32. “I think the situation is still very, very grim – we are by far not over the worst”

    Olli Heinonen, former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency

    Isn’t it time to start telling all the people who keep saying that there is nothing to worry about to stfu?

    8000+ micro Sv/h, THREE times what a person would get in a YEAR is now being measured. Multiple massive explosions and yet 9 out of 10 of comments keep saying there is nothing to worry about.

    Personally I like to prepare for the worst but hope for the best.

    1. Well you can worry if you like, but that would seem a waste of energy and time, as there is nothing one can personally do about this, serious though the situation may be.

      To worry too much, would seem rather self-indulgent to me.

      Maybe you need to buy more insurance. Or perhaps just buy any old thing, to get your mind off of things over which you have no control.

      for worry = stress
      and stress kills
      just as sure as radiation may

      1. No shit Dick Tracy. My complaint is that a large amount of commenters keep saying there is nothing to worry about which if NOT true could very well end up being DEADLY advice.

        Preparing for the worst however and assuming that the worst COULD happen might very well save lives.

          1. Don’t forget the great wind farm collapse of ’89.. very deadly. Nevar forget!!!!!111111!!!!!!!!!!!

          2. Cowicide’s a fine commenter, but we disagree strongly on this it seems.

            imho global warming is the biggest threat our species faces. That it is “slow-mo” and multi-generational will not aid the public to perceive how dire it will likely prove to be over the next few centuries.

            Bigger than people know, this problem, and we need to move now to stop burning oil/coal. The amounts we currently burn of oil and coal, and the amounts we shall need to reduce their use by, literally dictate nuclear power’s adoption in substitution.

            Solar voltaics (the production of which has been effected by this disaster, as much production of solar panels is iirc in Japan) and wind won’t do enough, fast enough, to change over our energy sources at the rate at which we must in order to forestall an utter climate disaster.

            Once the climate goes – and it is going now – we’ll be truly and completely baked.

            We need to start building more nuke plants right now.

          3. I have absolutely no idea what you are referring to, maybe you should ACTUALLY READ my comments.

          4. Dams are devices which have to fail explosively at some point. Not really comparable.

            They also displace people by the millions and destroy entire ecosystems. Not normally what people are thinking of when someone mentions renewable energy.

  33. I am not a geologist, but I am a 3rd year geology major. I can reassure you that Southern California will not be receiving any earthquakes on the scale of Japan’s anytime in the forseeable future, because they are two different types of faults. Japan is sitting on a convergent plate boundary, where ocean crust is moving towards continental crust and gets subducted (pushed down) under it. These plate boundaries cause the largest earthquakes on the planet, because the stress builds up for hundreds of years before being released. California, on the other hand, is on a strike-slip fault, where two plates move past each other, side by side, with no vertical change. They rub against each other as the Pacific plate moves north while the North American plate moves south. These fault boundaries create smaller earthquakes. You can imagine that two things moving towards each other will build up stress before being released, while two things moving past each other will glide more smoothly, though there may be bumps along the way.

    Having said that, they should construct the California power plant to withstand earthquakes magnitude 8. The largest earthquakes recorded on the San Andreas fault have been around 7.8, which is far more powerful than the 6.5 it’s built to withstand.

    And I could be wrong, but I am not aware of any tsunamis caused by San Andreas faulting.

    Anyway, I hope that was helpful.

    1. Anyway, I hope that was helpful.

      I find this more helpful:

      Significant Southern California earthquakes since 1857 (edited down to the biggest ones)

      Fort Tejon 7.9
      Kern County 7.5
      Laguna Salada 7.3
      Landers 7.3
      Offshore Lompoc 7.1
      Hector Mine 7.1
      Santa Barbara 6.8
      Imperial Valley 6.9
      San Jacinto/Hemet 6.7
      Northridge 6.7

  34. Back up generators are fine. IF:
    1) you can get a fuel truck to the generator site to re-fill
    After Loma Prieta commercial TV and radio went down after about 12 hours when the generators ran out of gas.
    2) your fuel truck can fill up with fuel
    If the power is out the electric pumps at the refinery won’t fill the truck.
    3) there is a source of fuel for your truck
    What happens if the refinery tanks leak or burn down? Did I mention the part about the truck needing to be able to transit a load of fuel?

    Good luck with your backup generators.

    In the SF area the Golden Gate Bridge seismic retrofit was designed for a maximum credible earthquake of 8.3. Beyond that the engineers believed there wouldn’t be much left on either side of the bridge, and not much of a need to cross on a bridge to nowhere. Is the rest of your supply chain built as robust as your facility?

  35. For folks interested in learning about the situation in Japan and nuclear power plants in general, this site, maintained by the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, has great information, written for people with and without knowledge of reactors:

  36. I heard today that the affected plant in Japan was at the end of its useful life though it wasn’t mentioned if there were plans to decommission it. That was at 40 years. So how long is this plant supposed to be in service without retrofitting or otherwise updating?

    1. Anon #85: i read somewhere, no link having, that one or more of these problem reactors were to be de-commissioned later this year.

  37. If you want power in your outlet, it’s going to involve some risks.
    At the moment, the choices where I live are nuclear or coal.
    Coal is an environmental nightmare (mining, runoff, tailings, transport, CO2 emissions, fly ash, slag ash, etc.).

    “What about alternatives?”, you may ask. Anybody remember the Clamshell Alliance? Their slogan was, “Try the SOLAR SOLUTION to NUCLEAR POLLUTION”. That was about 1978, as I recall.

    I’m still waiting for the SOLAR SOLUTION.

    1. If we spent the 54 billion in loan promises to the Nuke people on Solar, we’d start seeing the benefits of it within a couple years.
      We could start in the southwest and use that money for retrofitting existing structures with solar in a matter of days.
      Also, If I was king, starting tomorrow, you could not build a house, apartment, condo or office building in the Southwest without solar. If it goes up, then solar panels go on top.

      1. Solar panels (of the relatively shitty but normal 15ish% efficiency) can be bough as separate components and assembled for as little as $100-125 per 45w. So long as you don’t mind minor chips on the corners and can solder wires together.

        1. welcome all energy production which does not generate the greenhouse gases which fossil fuels do.

          Solar, wind, geothermal, geomagnetic, tidal – all and any should be used and developed.

          And i hope that more ways to generate emissions-free power are invented and discovered.

          But we must do it now.
          And nukes can do the most the fastest to get the emissions down.

          Fossil fuel damage to our environment, particularly so, the damage which manifests as climatic change, lags – and is cumulative.

          Time grows short.

          1. Welcome all energy production which does not generate the greenhouse gases which fossil fuels do.

            I’m gonna go ahead and distance myself from dogma and stick to good ideas.

            I know we’re after the same goal here, but I’d rather do it without risking massive flooding, ecosystem collapse and regional/sub-regional irradiation.

  38. Ugly Canuck: Well said. What I think you are trying to get across is that whatever damage the fukushima thing ends up doing to our planet, it will be absolutely dwarfed by the amount of damage that the hydrocarbon method has done.

    Never mind Global Warming . . . Already people have forgotten Saddam’s wells and the Deepwater Horizon?

    But I think the most effective and least divisive way of communicating the utter simplicity of the issue is that we ARE going to run out of fossil fuels, whether it’s in 20 years or 50 or 100 or 200. We’re going to run out, and then it’s going to be, revert to a localized, barely industrial, economy using springs and windpower, or continue with the global technological one we have while using nukes.

    I mean, I’m not sure what we’ll end up doing, but that we will be faced with just such a choice I have no doubt at all.

  39. There’s some pretty smart people responding – as a Californian I’ve always wondered if hydroelectric power is comparable to nuclear? I know environmentalists have halted construction of them because of fish or lizards or something… but it seems like dams are the logical answer to energy needs. No pollution, water storage for dry years, and if a quake did shake one apart at least the water eventually soaks into the ground unlike radiation.

    Are dams not being built strictly for environmental reasons, or do nuclear reactors put out so much more energy there’s no comparison?

    1. Speaking as someone with a lot of experience with rivers in CA, not many of them have the potential for hydropower there that don’t already have it. Even the ones that do (like the diversion from the Eel River to the Russian River) only actually exist to get the water from the unfarmable Eel Basin over to the winery covered Russian Basin.

      And it’s not just “fish and lizards” or something, it’s a heritage. Things are connected to each other. The salmon, for example, are the primary source of Sulfur for most of the redwood forest ecosusystems. Less sulfur = less vegitation = more erosion = more landslides.

      Also, especially in earthquake prone areas, a great weight, such as that backed up behind a new dam, will often cause some earthquakes.

      It is a poor mechanic who tosses out parts at random.

      1. emmdeeaych writes: Speaking as someone with a lot of experience with rivers in CA, not many of them have the potential for hydropower there that don’t already have it….

        I remember a couple dam projects getting squashed in the Auburn area years ago. If there’s someone wanting to build them there must be rivers capable of putting out enough energy to offset the building costs.

        I’m not looking for an environmental reason why dams shouldn’t be built because I don’t believe environmentalists have my best interest at heart. All the dried up farms in the San Joaquin Valley in favor of the Delta Smelt showed me that. If we dam 3 or 4 California rivers the whole eco-system is not going to fall apart.

        My only curiosity is if the average California dam has roughly the same electrical output as our average nuclear facility?

    2. Dams are all about location; some massive ones are being built as we speak, as in Northern Quebec, or China’s recent Three Gorges Project.

      As far as California goes, I really don’t know if geography is the reason why more dams aren’t built; but I do know that water rights are a very complex topic in California, and that in turn must complicate any dam building.

      1. Thank you Ugly Canuck for taking time to answer – I officially take back my suck on that Canada statement.

        Water rights are a mess here (see the movie “Chinatown”), but if it came down to a clean reliable safe source of energy the government could work through it if there was the political will. The will isn’t there right now but I wonder if the Japan situation could effect that?

        Still wondering – is the electrical output of a dam on par with nuclear, or is one far more efficient than the other?

        1. I don’t know, not being a power engineer. i don’t even have a ballpark feel for the magnitude of power a nuke plant generates, compared to say the electricity generated by Niagara Falls.

          But power generated from the fall of water is the cleanest there is, almost.

          That’s one reason i have a fondness for speculating about the possibilities for tidal power generation: it seems truly boundless in supply and clean.

        2. Water rights are a mess here (see the movie “Chinatown”)

          Just for the record, though Chinatown is brilliant film noir, it’s utter bollocks as far as Los Angeles history goes – especially the history of water and the San Fernando Valley.

          Bears some very vague resemblances, but is really nothing like the real story.

          (And, BTW, I’m the one who recommended the quake books, not “Anonymous.”)

          1. GlenBlank: (And, BTW, I’m the one who recommended the quake books, not “Anonymous.”)


            Okay Glen Blank… if that is your REAL name – please don’t wreck my hyperbole with facts. And don’t tell me it’s not hyperbole, but rather a simile or metaphor or some other word I don’t remember from sophomore English. And if Glen Blank really is your name, is the true spelling Blanc and are you related to Mel since you appear to live in LA?

            I just wanted an instant gratification answer to the question how do dams compare in electrical output to nuclear reactors?

  40. The plant is also sitting on a cliff face that is, if I recall correctly, at least 30-40 feet high. Any Southern Californian resident knows this. Saying that there’s just that one wall between the plant and the ocean is a bit misleading.

  41. I am heartbroken for the people of Japan. The Fukushima disaster got me thinking about San Onofre Nuclear thingie (aka SONGS) cause I honestly don’t think about it often. But as a kid, I never bought into it as being a “good idea;” driving past that place gave me the creeps.

    So, the nuclear engineers talk statistics and probabilities, when their building these things, or when a disaster happens, but what good does that do when the unexpected happens? Zip. The general populace is then officially screwed.

    And even if no major disasters happen, we and the generations after us will have to deal with the nuclear waste and side effects *for millenia*…not a wise exchange for a few decades of electricity. So, sell out the health of your kids and grandkids and beyond so the neighbors can leave on all the lights, and run the 3 TVs, and all the other gadgets cause dammit, this is America!
    I know, we’re all so used to the fast-food mentality of consumption. Get over it already.

    I digress.
    Today I started to dig. And the more I find out about San Onofre the more pissed I get. I didn’t even know Edison owned it. The thing was set to be decommissioned in 2013, but due to lobbying is going to limp along until proposed license renewal at 2022.

    Just browsed this still relevant article from 2009:
    SONGS sucks, and deserves to be shut-down. Pronto.

    I’m plotting ways to not give SCE my money. Mutual Fund has stock shares in SCE? Pulled out of that. I have turned into conservation nazi with the lights, and unplugging…and I will do everything in my power to be off grid, solar panels and all.

    1. Fully Here, I lived off the grid for a few years and it was interesting. I used solar and wind (solar was much better). I had a 2200 square foot house on five acres in northeastern California. I had a 3 KW system, 16 panels, and no 220 in my house (gas dryer, gas stove, wood heat). I had a couple computers a large screen LCD TV and all the modern stuff. It worked great 10 months out of the year, the other two months I had to kick on the generator in the mornings for an hour to charge the batteries up because of the long nights. I thought the wind turbines would compensate but they didn’t – the fridge running would get me on those long nights. I had about a dozen solar tubes for light (the skylight tubes from the roof to the ceiling) so I never had to turn on a light during the day. The panels last 35+ years and the only labor was keeping up the batteries. The best part was when the electricity went out and the hills were dark with the exception of my house :-)

  42. Give me a break. For all your breathlessness, you’re more likely to die from cancer caused by your hair dye than to even be injured by the reactor, let alone killed.

    40+ year old technology takes a mega earthquake, a tidal wave and a couple of explosions. After all that, some people in a small area may have been exposed to some radiation. This one makes a grand total of three – count ’em, three – nuclear accidents worth mentioning, one of which was a man-made clusterfuck, another of which did sweet FA, and this latest one. And you worry that it’s not safe?

    1. Yeah, thanks for that comment – sometimes I think I may be missing something, seeing the very negative reaction of some to the use of nuclear power.

  43. I suspect the threat to human health from coal-fired power plants is, on the whole, much more than the threat from nuclear plants. Even old ones.

  44. Something to keep in mind: this nuclear plant has prevented over 100 million tons of coal from being burned.

    The calculation: The plant has produced an average of 17,204 GWh / year, over 16 years. 1 million tons of coal provides 2,400 GWh. So this is the equivalent of a little over 100 million tons of coal.

    How many hundreds of mountain tops is that? How many destructive mines? How many pollutants thrown into the air and into lungs of South Californians? How many pounds of carbon dioxide contributing to global warming?

    Oh wait, I can answer that last one.According to [1] it would have put out about 273 million tons of CO2, and 700,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 714,000 tons of nitrogen oxide.

    You want to make up tabloid scare stories about how ZOMG we’re all going to die? At least understand the alternatives.

    1. That 100 million tons of coal also contained uranium and thorium.

      At 1 to 10 ppm U for coal, that’s 100 to 1000 tons of uranium. 250 to 2500 tons of thorium. Ok, 99.5% of that is captured and never goes up the stack, so that nuke plant has only avoided the release of 1.75 to 17.5 tons or radioactive elements into the atmosphere.

      There is only 50 tons of uranium in the reactor itself. (granted, the real hot stuff are the daughter products).

  45. A key point here is the nature of the reactor. It’s a pressurised reactor instead of a boiling water reactor.
    This *probably* means it has a negative temperature function (nuclear reactions slow down if it overheats) and it *might* have gravity-fed emergency cooling systems. They’re standard now but I don’t know about this 40-yr old design. If it does have these things, then we can keep calm and carry on.

    Also, remember all those idiots who complain about how we’ll all die because men design rockets because they look like a big penis. Are we less likely to die from things built to look like tits?

  46. I think it’s time to shut down this plant. Let Southern California learn to conserve energy resources as we pursue safer energy sources (solar, etc.). It’s just not worth the risk of affecting not just our local area, but internationally. It’s not equipped to handle a large tsunami, and Hawaii is overdue for a submarine landslide. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

  47. GlenBlank excellent points – what about the spent rods? I remember a geology professor in college going off on Yucca Mountain and the earthquake potential. Of course, it was the University of Nevada, Reno, so his criticism may have been more NIMBY-based than geology based. It is pretty amazing to see nearly everything that could go wrong going wrong with Japan’s 40-year-old facility and there hasn’t been a massive release of radiation. Someone also mentioned pebble based reactors which looks like an even safer setup at first glance. The military has also been running nuke vessels for many years without problems (unless they’ve been kept secret).

  48. If it’s too dangerous to have nuclear power plants in earthquake zones then … put it in my backyard instead.

    In other words, it’s time to restart Shoreham.

    1. It’s only rated at 820MW. That generation could be achieved quite easily with renewables. And probably cheaper, if you dare to count in the externalized costs.

  49. please can someone tell me why a nuclea power station was built so near people’s homes and so near a quake fault and the sea. i cant understand why .im 69 years of age and sometimes think some people are so stuppid. but im sure there is a reason .can anyone tell me i cant get my head round it.simple answer would be good not a scientific one.thanks.
    patricia vaughan

  50. If anyone listened to the interview with the San Onofre guy, you’d know that:
    1) the plant’s nearest fault line can produce an earthquake of only 7.0 richter scale (worst case scenario)
    2) That fault line could create a tsunami that is 25′ high. The plant has a tsunami wall that is 30′ high, (worst case scenario)
    3) Civil engineering mandates that when preparing for seismic events you use ground force acceleration in your calculation. using the Richter scale is meaningless. The plant was designed to withstand a ground force acceleration of 0.67 G’s. This is twice as powerful as what the Japanese plant experienced.

  51. I’d like to thank everyone pointing out that coal plants emit more radioactives than nuclear (not to mention carbon).

    Now that we can all see the real costs and risks of coal and nuclear technology, and now that solar and wind (Tens of GW capacity added in the past few years) are more than competitive, there should be no hesitation about reducing the risk by investing heavily in decentralized renewables.

    “By 2030, 90% of energy in the US can be provided by wind and solar.” — two professors at U.C. Davis.

  52. Am I the only one who gets a little upset reading the analyses of why this plant is safe?

    All that “logical” analysis DOES NOT WORK!! Argh!

    Some problems are:
    a) unexpected/unknowable events
    b) possible errors in your analysis per se
    c) gullibility- facts lend weight to argument, but the sources have a tendency to be unreliable
    d) cognitive bias, namely “couldn’t happen here”

    We know, intuitively, that old plants like this one are simply unsafe. And the consequences could be so much worse than a banking crisis. Learn from experience: Shut it down.

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